Cyprus looks for plan B

There is no plan B.

At 10am Cyprus time, the Cypriot government started to hammer out another vote on whether they have a plan B to present to the European Central Bank. If they do not have an alternative to the mooted deposit tax by Monday, the bank will cut off emergency liquidity assistance to Cyprus' two biggest banks, plunging them into bankruptcy, and putting Cyprus on a path which will inevitably lead them to an exit from the euro, and possibly the EU altogether.

Cyprus does not, currently, have a plan B.

The plans to be put in front of Parliament cover the winding up of Laiki, one of the two troubled banks (the other is the Bank of Cyprus), splitting it into "good" and "bad" banks, hopefully ensuring that the depositors in the good bank – those with insured deposits under €100,000 – do not immediately withdraw their money once the banks reopen.

That proposal has received a "cautious" response from eurozone finance ministers, according to the Financial Times, but doesn't go anywhere near solving the problem.

In giving the Monday deadline, the European diplomats and ministers who ultimately hold sway over Cyprus also clarified their position about what an acceptable solution would be, and in doing so made things much, much worse.

We already knew that their initial proposal to the Cypriot government offered a loan of €10bn and required the government come up with a further €7bn itself in order to fund the €17bn needed for recapitalisation of the banks. But, reports Felix Salmon:

The stated reason why Europe won’t lend more than €10 billion is that Europe refuses to allow Cyprus’s debt level rise above a certain level.

That means that, at a stroke, most of Cyprus' alternative solutions are bust. It can't take a loan from the Russian government, it can't borrow from its own pension funds, it can't confiscate deposits and replace them with post-dated bonds.

The EU is basically confirming to Cyprus that its options are:

  1. Pass the deposit tax.
  2. Find some other tax which will get €7bn – a little under a third of GDP – in a weekend.
  3. Leave the eurozone.

In a way, though, the background situation has got better for Cyprus in the last week. On Monday, the country was deathly afraid of the deposit tax because it could have signalled the death of Cyprus as a destination for offshore banking. That appears to have been the reason why it took the disastrous choice to "spread the pain" by hitting insured depositors with a tax on top of uninsured.

Now, it doesn't have to worry about that, because its role as an offshore banking destination is dead already. It is, bluntly, inconceivable that the "solution" to the crisis, whatever it is, won't result in deposit flight from overseas depositors. The only hope left is to ensure that it doesn't also result in Cypriots moving their money offshore.

With that in mind, it may turn out to be the case that the best solution for Cyprus is the one it was offered at the start: soak the (largely foreign) rich with a 15 per cent deposit tax, look after the poor's deposits, and move on to trying to find an alternative basis for its economy.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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